Researchers find a link between type 1 diabetes and viral infection

by Barbara Hewitt on February 25, 2014

Researchers have presented evidence which strongly suggests there is a link between viral infection and the development of type 1 diabetes.

The team from the University of Cambridge in the UK discovered that a genetic response normally associated with infection preceded the first indications of the condition in children.


Researchers looked at the link between type 1 diabetes and anti-viral immune response genes

Scientists have long known that there is a strong genetic element to being at increased risk of type 1 diabetes but not everyone with this increased inherited risk goes on to develop the condition.

Research suggests that environmental factors must be important but their identities largely remain elusive, with viral infections being the lead candidate. Researchers already knew that a link existed between type 1 diabetes and a form of immune response genes known as anti-viral type I interferon (type I IFN.)

Now the study, which consisted of 87 healthy children, 109 children with a genetic susceptibility towards developing type 1 diabetes and 87 children with type 1 diabetes, has found that the type I IFN signature they were looking out for was increased, temporarily, in the children susceptible to type 1 diabetes prior to the development of the auto antibodies which attack the insulin producing cells in the pancreas. By contrast, no increased type I IFN signature was present in children that were healthy or already had type 1 diabetes.

‘We can now move our research forward to dissect out what effects such an anti-viral gene response has on the immune system to increase the risk of autoimmunity and type 1 diabetes in very young children,’ said professor John Todd, director of the JDRF/Wellcome Trust Diabetes and Inflammation Laboratory at the Cambridge Institute for Medical Research, a co-director of the project.

He and JDRF postdoctoral fellow Dr Ricardo Ferreira, who led the research, believe their findings could lead to a way of identifying children at increased risk of type 1 diabetes, even before they develop the immune system proteins, known as auto antibodies that are currently the only immune system marker for the condition before symptoms arise.

Last year, JDRF funded research in Finland pointed to the coxsackie B virus as one potential environmental trigger. The Cambridge research lends support to this idea. The genes identified are usually activated when the body produces a protein called type I interferon, which is emitted by cells when they encounter a virus.

Among children suspected to be at high risk of developing type 1 diabetes, these genes were most strongly activated, or ‘expressed,’ in those who subsequently went on to produce auto antibodies to pancreatic cells, whereas children who did not develop this immune response during the study had lower levels of activation.

In contrast, the genes were only weakly expressed in healthy participants and people who already had type 1 diabetes. This suggests that the response is limited to the period before the immune response is triggered, and could therefore lead to a way of identifying who is at greatest risk of developing the condition, allowing them to access treatment earlier than is currently possible.

‘We now have a handle on a potential biomarker that can be detected easily in a tiny blood sample that may indicate viral infections with predisposing effects in autoimmunity against the insulin-producing cells of the pancreas,’ explained Ferreira.

The researchers also found a link to respiratory infections, as children who had a recent respiratory condition were more likely to have the high level of gene activation. The researchers now hope to carry out a study with additional infection data, potentially allowing them to track the effects of viruses on type 1 diabetes.

‘The results of this study certainly appear worthy of being explored further. Type 1 diabetes is a challenging and complex condition. But it will one day be cured. It’s just a matter of time, money and excellent research such as this,’ said Karen Addington, chief executive of JDRF.




The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of the Community and should not be interpreted as medical advice. Please see your doctor before making any changes to your diabetes management plan.

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